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Born: August 26, 1970
Plainfield, Illinois, USA
Born: December 3, 1939
Birthplace: Brooklyn, New York City, New York, USA
Death: December 24, 2014, Manhattan, New York City, New York, USA (myeloma)
Yes. Israel addresses this in her memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me? She explains that Macmillan Publishing gave her an advance in 1983 to start the project on Lauder. They wanted it to be an unauthorized biography that didn't hold back in exposing the less-than-savory sides of the cosmetics magnate. According to Israel, Lauder tried to repeatedly pay her off to drop the project. Israel refused and Lauder retaliated by writing her own memoir, which was published in the fall of 1985 to coincide with the release of Israel's biography.
As a result, Israel had to hurry her book, Estée Lauder: Beyond the Magic, to completion. It was trashed by critics and became a failure commercially as well. "I had made a mistake," Israel would later write in her own memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me? "Instead of taking a great deal of money from a woman rich as Oprah, I published a bad, unimportant book, rushed out in months to beat [Lauder's own memoir] to market."
Yes. After the failure of her 1985 biography on Estée Lauder, her career went into decline and she struggled to make ends meet. "I had never known anything but ‘up’ in my career," she stated in her memoir. Like in the movie, she was overburdened by unpaid bills and a sick cat that needed veterinary care. A 9-to-5 job was out of the question and friends say that she wouldn't have had the temperament for it. “I regarded with pity and disdain the short-sleeved wage slaves who worked in offices,” she wrote in her memoir. “I had no reason to believe life would get anything but better.” In addition to ending up on welfare, the true story reveals that it wasn't long before Israel committed her first criminal act.
"[It] happened incrementally, like most evil things do," Israel told NPR in 2008. "I went to the library and was given a bunch of letters, which I should not have been given in a nonsecure area." Instead of returning all of the letters, she kept a few letters written by stage, screen and radio star Fanny Brice. Israel tucked them in her shoes to conceal them and walked out the door. "There was a big white space at the bottom of a letter after 'Yours truly, Fanny Brice.' I got an old typewriter, and I wrote a couple of hot sentences that improved the letter and elevated the price." She sold each one for $40 a piece. It was hardly a windfall, but by 1991 it was enough to help her make ends meet. "For the first time in a long time, I had some jingle in my jeans," she said. It also laid the foundation for her to refine her skills for future forgeries that she sold for slightly more money.
Yes. In the Can You Ever Forgive Me? movie, Lee Israel longs for companionship and visits her favorite bookshop often, which culminates in a date with Anna (Dolly Wells) that she ultimately sabotages. Real-life friends of Israel have confirmed that she was homosexual. At the end of her life, she had no children and lived alone.
Yes. She was an alcoholic who could be nasty at times. “She drank an awful lot — she was an alcoholic,” friend David Yarnell said shortly after her death. “And she was very feisty, and people did not want to work with her.” -The New York Times
The Can You Ever Forgive Me? true story confirms that Lee Israel went to the extreme lengths we see in the movie in order to make sure that her forgeries looked authentic. She obtained old typewriters that were prominent in the era that the letters were supposed to have been written. She kept them in a rented storage locker on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, each typewriter adorned with a tag that included various names — Dorothy, Noël, Eugene O’Neill, Bogart, Louise Brooks. In order to match the age that the paper should be, she went to libraries and removed vintage paper from the back of period journals. As an experienced researcher, she tracked down published letters written by her subjects and extracted characteristics to help her forgeries appear more authentic. This included tracing over the signatures to duplicate onto her forgeries.
“She was brilliant,” commented retired F.B.I. agent Carl Burrell, who worked as the lead investigator on Israel's case. -The New York Times
By her own account, it is estimated that she either stole, altered, or flat out forged more than 400 letters from deceased actors and writers, including Dorothy Parker, Noël Coward, Ernest Hemingway, Louise Brooks, and more. She was one of the most successful forgers in literary history. Israel said that the dealers were "spectacularly incurious," mainly because the content of the letters wasn't overly salacious or hard to believe. -NPR
Fact-checking Can You Ever Forgive Me? reveals that she didn't make a whole lot off of each letter, normally selling them for anywhere from $50 to $100. The letters mainly consisted of personal opinions and anecdotes that would be attractive to collectors but not the average person. For the most part, this allowed her forgeries to escape the scrutiny of scholars. If she sold roughly 400 letters as she's stated, that would put her max profit no higher than $40,000. It was likely much lower. However, turning the story of her exploits into a bestselling book made her crimes much more lucrative in the end.
Israel returned to what she had done initially, sell original letters that she stole from renowned libraries, including the New York Public Library and the libraries of Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Princeton Universities. Only this time, instead of just stealing the originals, she first studied them, then stole the letters and put forged copies in there place. To keep herself at a distance, she had an ex-con friend sell the originals for her. -The New York Times
Yes. Although, he is only scantily mentioned in Lee Israel's memoir. She describes him as a tall, "wheaten-haired gay man" who was an "old bartending acquaintance." He had been in jail for two years for holding up a taxi driver at knife point while arguing about the fare. Hock was a chain smoker who used a short cigarette holder because he thought it would prevent him from getting lung cancer. Israel describes him as having taken many beatings, which she learned through friends were from hustlers for whose services he had refused to pay. Hock, who was born in Portland (he wasn't British like in the movie), died of AIDS at age 47 in 1994. The actor who portrays Hock in the film, Richard E. Grant, was 59 at the time of filming.
Like in the movie, she describes Jack Hock as helping her fence the stolen letters after the authorities were onto her. He was often able to use his street smarts and charm to negotiate for much more than she originally anticipated getting. -Filmwax Radio
Yes. A New York autograph dealer named David H. Lowenherz purchased a lengthy letter written by Ernest Hemingway to journalist Norman Cousins. Things appeared on the level until Lowenherz discovered that the letter belonged to Columbia University's collection. He got in touch with the university, and it was then that the forgery was discovered in their collection. They looked at the access cards to see who had recently signed to be given access to the letter. A familiar name appeared, Lee Israel. -Town & Country
The FBI stepped in and recovered many of the stolen letters, in addition to Lee Israel's forgeries. However, as of 2015, the agent in charge believed that more letters remained undiscovered. -The New York Times
Lee Israel's letters didn't result in her facing any jail time. In 1993, she plead guilty to a single count of conspiracy to transport stolen property across state lines for profit. She was given six months house arrest and five years probation. The court instructed that she attend an alcohol treatment program. "I never did," she wrote in her memoir. In addition to the ramifications brought by the court, many libraries barred her from entering. -The New York Times
Israel found work as a copy editor for Scholastic magazines. She also went on to write her fourth book, her memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which focuses on her exploits as a literary forger. It would be her final book. What did Lee Israel consider to be her finest achievement? "I still consider the letters to be my best work," she said in her memoir.